Law Grads Still Face a Tough Job Market

May 4, 2016, 4:25 PM

The American Bar Association released the latest law school employment data this week. There’s some good news, but the entry-level market remains grim for new law school graduates.

The legal job rate is up slightly from 58 to 59.2 percent for 2015 graduates. These rates include graduates with long-term, full-time jobs as a lawyer 10 months after graduation, but not jobs funded by the law school.

This figure has improved for the last four years. In 2011, the job market bottomed out with just 53.8 percent of 2011 graduates taking long-term, full-time legal jobs. Since then, the legal job rate has crept up slowly by an average of 1.35 percent per year.

Lower enrollment explains at least some of the upward trend over the last two years. Students who graduated in 2015 started in 2012, the second of five consecutive years of enrollment decline. However, in that time, the raw number of legal jobs has also fallen each year.

The raw number of legal jobs for 2015 graduates indicate a still-troubled entry-level job market. This year’s decline of 6.8 percent was substantially greater than last year’s decline of 1.9 percent. There were only 23,687 long-term, full-time law jobs for 2015 graduates as of the reporting date — just 14 jobs more than in 2011, commonly regarded as the bottom of the market.

Today, there are fewer 1Ls than 2Ls, 2Ls than 3Ls, and 3Ls than 2015 graduates. These enrollment declines will have a positive impact on job rates in 2016 and beyond. However, the trend of fewer legal jobs should concern law school administrators. The evidence does not support plans at the vast majority of schools to increase enrollment to stave off deep financial trouble.

The entry-level job market at large firms — a firm with 100 or more attorneys office wide — tells a similar story. The last two years have seen an uptick of 1 percent each year in the percentage of graduates starting jobs at these firms. However, the raw number of jobs has been remarkably consistent, ranging from 5,960 to 6,064.

In prior years, large firm job numbers explained the change in legal job rates. Not so lately. The consistency indicates another source for the decline. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to see exactly where due to data limitations, but proxies show a substantial source was hiring at smaller law firms with fewer than 100 attorneys.

Unsurprisingly, large firms hire from a very small number of schools. This is especially true at firms with more than 500 attorneys. About two-thirds of the nearly 4000 new jobs at these firms came from just 20 law schools.

Other key items:

  • Seventy three and a half percent of 2015 graduates had long-term, full-time professional jobs, legal and otherwise.

  • More than two-thirds of employed graduates stay in-state for their first job.

  • If you want to look at school-specific performance, check out my organization’s website , which makes digesting it very easy.

The author of this post is the head of an organization aimed at making law school more transparent and affordable.

(CORRECTED: Some of the original numbers in this post were inaccurate and have since been updated.)

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